Lawrence Rhodes opens doors at Juilliard with a pluralistic approach and collaborative spirit.

Rhodes' celebrated ballet class gives dancers space to work on their bodies and technique at their own pace, says longtime colleague Alexandra Wells.

Lawrence Rhodes will tell you that he doesn’t really have a vision. In conversation, he will reduce his seven years as director of the dance division at The Juilliard School to a single sentence—“A program like this should reflect the intensity of the professional dance world.” But his faculty colleagues, his students and virtually anyone to whom you talk in the dance world will inform you, with uncommon passion, that his transformation of one of America’s most prominent dance conservatories has been insightful, pragmatic, humane and, yes, despite his modesty, visionary.

The verdict is that Rhodes, an extraordinarily versatile and peripatetic dancer in the earlier stage of his career, has built on a solid foundation at Juilliard and fashioned a model of enlightened pedagogy that may resound beyond the profession. The public has long recognized the Juilliard brand as the most distinguished the music world can offer. With Rhodes at the helm, it’s dance’s turn now.

The metamorphosis of the 58-year-old dance division started at the top. “Juilliard’s president, Joseph Polisi, has given me total cooperation,” says Rhodes in a conversation from his Lincoln Center office. “He thought we were ready to progress to the next level, and didn’t care that the effort might be different or cost more money.”

Juilliard starts also with an illustrious faculty and a host of the country’s most promising young dancers. Of the more than 450 who audition annually for the freshman class, only 24 (12 of each gender) are admitted, and no more than 96 students participate in the program at any one time. When they graduate with BFA degrees, opportunity beckons. They join ballet and modern companies here and abroad. Or they journey a mile south of the campus to Broadway. Or they may even sign up for a stint in the far-flung Cirque du Soleil empire.

But it’s what happens to these dancers in the four years between enrollment and graduation that tells the real story of Rhodes’ accomplishment. Of what should an education in dance consist? Shouldn’t it be more than a passkey to a paycheck? Those were the questions that obsessed Rhodes when he returned to New York after a decade running Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal to succeed the late Benjamin Harkarvy at Juilliard in June 2002.

One of the few things I thought was really important to the program was to open the door,” says Rhodes. “Yes, we were like a family, but it had been a kind of closed shop here, with very few outside choreographers engaged. There were so many people around who had never been here and never exposed to the students in a real way, and vice versa.”

The result has been a substantial change in the Juilliard performance schedule. The spring concert continues to highlight the year’s activities: Repertory dances by Mark Morris, Ohad Naharin, Lar Lubovitch and Twyla Tharp (with most of the choreographers tending rehearsals) enchanted press and public in March 2009. Not quite good enough for Rhodes, however. In terms of the overall program, he sensed that something was lacking and the dancers articulated his intuition.

The students were rehearsing endlessly for this concert. I felt that they were more efficient than that, and they let me know after a while that it was not thrilling to drill rep like that,” he says. “Also, I had noticed that the visiting choreographers quickly chose whom they wanted to work with. The best dancers were in two or three of the pieces and a large segment of the school population was left out. I felt that wasn’t just. I felt that performance was part of the educational experience, part of the life.”

The solution? A fall project that Rhodes has dubbed New Dances, a commissioning program with a few strings attached. As Rhodes describes it, “four choreographers are each assigned a class and they are required to use the entire class. So, when we get to December, we have four premieres and 92 dancers on the big stage. Everyone has been part of the creative process.” Last year’s quartet of dancemakers included Larry Keigwin, Sidra Bell, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Johannes Wieland. Andrea Miller and Stijn Celins are among the choreographers promised for fall 2009.

New York–based Keigwin has repeatedly visited Juilliard as part of this program and he is not reticent to tell you why: “Larry Rhodes is a gracious host to dancemaking, dance appreciation and dance going. He is easy to collaborate with and seems to always observe the creative process with a smile.”

Offstage, Rhodes’ curriculum innovations have met with comparable responses. He has introduced an anatomy course as a third-year requirement, a slam-dunk in his opinion. “This was an elective before I arrived. But that’s ridiculous. In Irene Dowd, we have on the staff one of the world’s great anatomists and kinesiologists,” he says, adding, “The dancers didn’t like it at first.”

Yet, in time, the course has been cordially received. As graduating senior Spenser Theberge says, “I am now able to pinpoint the places in my body that trouble me. Now, I know what a bone looks like and how it attaches. Your body, after all, is your instrument.”

In addition, Rhodes has imposed a mandatory acting class (ex-student Corey Scott-Gilbert, now with LINES Ballet, recalls that “it pushed us in ways that we didn’t think we could go”) and made one-semester courses in creative process (involving collaboration and improvisation) and music and dance required steps to a degree. Rhodes cautions, though, that true musicality cannot be taught. “It is a gift. It inhabits the body,” he states.

And in Rhodes’ celebrated ballet class, he allows that gift to blossom. Students, past and present, as well as colleagues, laud the experience. Notes the Juilliard faculty’s Alexandra Wells: “Some classes are so technically impossible that, by the time you leave the room, you’re so depressed you can barely put one foot in front of the other. Larry’s class gives dancers space to work on their bodies and their technique at their own pace. It sets you up for the whole day.”

If the curriculum at Juilliard is evolving, so are the qualities that Rhodes sees in this new generation of students. “I don’t know how this happens, but physical potential and physical gifts are growing. These people seem to be much more flexible than they ever were in my day,” says Rhodes. “There’s a huge amount of hypermobility, too, which brings problems. These students are exposed to a lot of dancing, but it’s of the commercial variety, on TV and in clubs. It’s much more a part of their lives than when I was a kid. But then they come to this city and see an enormous amount of dance, and that, too, is a big part of their education.”

Rhodes has gone far in demolishing the image of Juilliard as a professional dancer mill. “While it is true that, especially in classroom work, the students function as a group, the truth,” he says, “is that we have now moved into a time of individual care. That means we all look at a student’s needs on a one-by-one basis. Does he need weight training? Does she need Pilates? And what should they do with their summers?”

Juilliard seniors, Rhodes says, benefit from a great deal of advisement, including the preparation of CVs and DVDs and personally tailored career suggestions. At one time, Juilliard had acquired the reputation of a feeder school for a mere handful of professional companies (notably Limón and Nederlands Dans Theater). Rhodes maintains a more pluralistic attitude; he will gently guide his students to the right job, appraising their strengths and channeling their preferences. “It’s simply realistic,” he says.

To bridge that transition from classroom to career, Rhodes led a European tour (Caen, Paris and Dresden) of the senior dance concert this spring. And to that end, he has launched a program for seniors in which choreographers will teach a class or a repertory piece in special sessions. “My motivation is to introduce a lot of students to a lot of creative people and the way those people move and rehearse. And the choreographers are also introduced to the students, so they’re not strangers.”

That process is what led senior Aaron Carr to join Keigwin + Company for next year. And the personalized teacher-student relationship, an approach for which Rhodes was celebrated when he ran the New York University dance program decades ago, has left its mark on a generation of Juilliard students.

I like to find a connection with my teachers and Larry has always been so open to that,” says Theberge, who heads for NDT 2 this summer. “He has been a great mentor beyond the classroom. I hope he’ll be a mentor long after my Juilliard years.”

Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and contributes to dance and music publications in the U.S. and abroad.

Photo by Rachel Papo

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